by Stephen Duncan MSc
Balanced Fitness Ltd
What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander.
The vast majority of people that join a gym are looking to feel better, look better, lose weight. However there is lot of confusion within the general public as to how to best go about achieving these goals as shown by the following comments I frequently hear when first starting with a new client:
- “Swimming is good for you isn’t it?”
- “Running is good for losing weight!”
- “Running is bad for the knees”
- “Pilates is good for the core muscles!”
- “Yoga is good for flexibility!”
- “You don’t want to lift heavy weights because you get big muscles!”
- “I need to do more cardio!”
- “My back (or knees) hurt so I can’t do X!”
- “X, Y or Z is good for keeping you fit!”
All of the above can be right and wrong depending upon the person and right or wrong at different times for the same person. Your fitness program should be all about a balanced approach to your needs right now and then matched to your goals.
I believe that if you want to feel better through exercise that you should focus upon how you move. To look better you should work on your breathing and posture, stretching tight muscles and toning up long muscles. If you are trying to lose fat, you need to focus on making improvements in your food and when you do work out make sure it is intense enough that you are out of your comfort zone.
Being active as in taking the stairs and walking the dog is important, however it’s the bare minimum.
A basic requirement of human health is that we move each and every day, we are not designed to be sedentary and sitting is a health disaster. When the body is no longer working as well as it should through neglect or injury then targeted exercise is essential. Someone trying to be healthy would take the stairs automatically and routinely walk places instead of using a car or bus. Exercise should be about specific pieces of work where you are pushing yourself, finding physical challenges that your body in time adapts to and in turn you become ever fitter.
If you do no exercise or very little, then you should become more active in the first instance – then start a specific program of exercise that focuses on challenging your weaknesses but also doesn’t neglect your strengths. Even an exercise beginner has strengths. It would be a mistake to assume because you have never done formal exercise or gone to gyms and exercise classes that you have no strengths.
An extremely important one – not always found in the gym – is the desire and commitment to push yourself and make your time working out a challenge. Many people spend hours doing the same exercise, week in, week out for years and sweat lots; but they’re no longer being challenged and then pat themselves on the back for at least turning up and doing their bit. It is not uncommon to hear gym members say “it’s better than nothing”!
I would argue if the goal is to look better and lose weight then they are no longer working towards their goals. As we are all different there is the argument that they feel better from doing the same workout over and over, even if they are only kidding themselves on in other aspects of fitness.
If most of your day involves sitting down and you have painful or stiff knees, your program should start off with a focus on stretching and becoming more mobile. I find that the reason people have a problem with running is that they do not prepare their bodies for the rigours involved and then over do the actual running. Repeating the same movements to excess without sufficient recovery will lead the body to adapt by becoming stiffer. It is common to find people who run with no other compensatory training too stiff in the ankles, knees and hips – so in these cases it is correct to say “running is bad for the knees”.
There are many different ways to stretch; yoga is not the answer for everyone. A better answer would be to find out exactly what muscles or group of muscles are tight and stretch them as opposed to stretching all your muscles regardless of need.
Pilates is a great system of exercises that challenge your deeper muscles, the ones that you can’t always see as they surround your joints or spine and wrap around your internal organs. Again, there are many ways to skin a cat when it comes to exercise. The key thing is to learn how to work these core muscles, identify what good posture is and then challenge it in time in your chosen fitness regime which can be sport or your exercise program in the gym. Learning to use your core muscles will also help you move more effectively, sit better at work with less load on your spine and even reduce the likelihood of injury. Being less injured means you can keep on exercising and not miss dedicated exercise sessions.
If you work on your flexibility, strength and endurance, train your core muscles whilst constantly maintaining good posture, you will have a more balanced exercise program. You will be more likely to achieve your goals of feeling better as general movement just doesn’t hurt and is easier. You are also no longer limited in what exercise you can do. Running is less likely to hurt your knees. You can lift weights without hurting your back, play golf without your back or knees hurting. By practising the right exercises, it is also possible to spend all day in front of the computer screen without neck or shoulder pain. You look better as your posture improves and you stand your height, head up, shoulders back and stomach drawn in.
To lose weight, you want to use exercises that involve large muscles and you have to work them hard again and again with good form. You should aim to sweat and raise the heart rate. Now this can be done by lifting weights or by running, swimming or an exercise class. If you are working hard, your heart and lungs, your cardiovascular system will be challenged so many types of exercise fit the bill for a cardio workout.
The key to losing weight is making it challenging; so if you have only 20 or 30 minutes, pick exercises where you can push yourself whether that be weights or running. If you have longer to exercise – for example longer than an hour – then maybe swimming or running better fits the bill. If you have 3 hours then try hiking over a hill or going out for a cross country, mountain bike ride.
So as much as the time you have available to exercise should dictate what you do, you should also keep in mind that if you more frequently workout for 30 minutes, it would be a good idea for a balanced approach to also find the time to work out for longer than an hour. Sometimes people do not achieve their exercise goals because they over-rely on one type of exercise. We all know people who are always out running – and a ‘gym bunny’ is someone who just about never leaves the gym. It’s too easy, in some respects, to get stuck in a rut doing the same old, same old routines.
Exercising intensely with weights can help you lose fat and, if done with limited recovery, will also give you a cardio workout. If the weights are heavy and you can only perform a few reps then, as a man, in time you can gain muscle – but it is not a foregone conclusion. If you are a woman, the lack of the right balance of hormones makes gaining muscle a much bigger challenge.
So if you want to feel better, look better and lose weight and you do exercise then have a look at whether your exercise routine has become routine and as a result neglected the different aspects that improve your weaknesses.